Untangling (Social and Mainstream) Media Ethics

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Anyone can post content on social media. In the UNESCO report “The Media: Operation Decontamination,” Aidan White notes that “Today, it’s not just journalists who need to watch their language and show respect for the facts; everyone with something to say in the public information sphere needs to show some ethical restraint.” 

Today, I’m sharing resources for understanding the ethical responsibilities of media leadership. There are many variables complicating media ethics. Six of them are named below. 

Variables Complicating Media Ethics

  • Mainstream media is competing with social media for people’s attention
  • There are differing standards/ethics codes for media by country (and we’re globally connected on social media)
  • A glut of content makes it harder to reach and retain readers/viewers/followers
  • Mainstream media is seeking advertising income (while competing for people’s attention)
  • Activists and others share passionate expressions of their beliefs (and some of those beliefs conflict with ethical principles of journalism)
  • We have a desire for freedom of speech and expression AND a desire for respectful discourse and freedom from violence. Sometimes these freedoms conflict. 

Accountable Journalism has links to hundreds of international codes of media ethics, accessible by continent. Since countries disagree about the limits and protections of free speech, there is a need for global direction.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner shares this International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by 74 countries. Extremely relevant today, Article 20 provides high level international guidance on protecting human rights and freedoms: 

“Article 20
1. Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.
2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

United Nations Human Rights OHCHR, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Article 20 is a powerful guideline, but with the explosion of content on social media, there is the temptation to abandon these important principles (and ethics) just to get people’s attention. The competition for views and advertising dollars is fierce, but there’s more to the story. Leaders and media platforms focusing on metrics and struggling to compete may fail to notice rapidly increasing expectations for authenticity, transparency and human rights. 

The Ethical Journalism Network shares 5 Principles of Ethical Journalism.

Reuters Institute For the Study of Journalism shares Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2017 by Nic Newman.

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About Linda Fisher Thornton
Linda Fisher Thornton is Founder and CEO of Leading in Context, and author of the award-winning book 7 Lenses. She teaches as Adjunct Assoc. Prof. for University of Richmond SPCS. She is leading a movement to help leaders and organizations Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership.

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